When the Surrey Eagles hit the ice Friday at South Surrey Arena, it will be a chance to officially put last season in the rearview mirror, and instead focus on the future – one that, for head coach Blaine Neufeld, hopefully includes the playoffs.
“That’s the goal. Our plans, our goal, is to win our division and make the playoffs,” Neufeld said. “We just want to put last year out of our minds.”
Last year, local hockey fans will recall, was a particularly tough one for the BC Hockey League club. Neufeld was in his first year behind the bench – in his first-ever junior ‘A’ head coaching job – after taking over from Peter Schaefer, and the roster, too, was turned over quite dramatically.
In an attempt to better connect with the community, the team tried its best to stock the roster with local products, many of whom were rookies. As well, the team was beset with a slew of injuries, and played many games with affiliate players.
In the end, it all added up to a league-worst 9-45-1-3 record (win-loss-overtime loss-tie) and the second-worst offence in BCHL history, scoring at a clip of just 2.33 goals-per-game.
But all that is in the past, Neufeld said. Now, with a bevy of new faces – only eight players from last year’s team remain, after off-season trades, graduations and training-camp cuts – the squad is hoping to get off to a good start, beginning Friday against the Langley Rivermen, and Sunday afternoon, at home against the Coquitlam Express.
“We have about 14 guys on the team now who knew nothing about last season, and all they want to do is win,” the second-year coach said.
“The tune has changed quite a bit around here.”
Helping matters was the fact that Neufeld and his staff had a full off-season to recruit talent – last year, Neufeld took the reins midway through the summer.
Among the new recruits Neufeld is most excited about is new starting goaltender Justin LaForest, who was acquired from the RBC Cup champion Portage Terriers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, and 18-year-old Danish defenceman Ludvig Adamsen.
LaForest will be tasked with replacing outgoing netminder Christian Short, who was among the BCHL’s busiest netminders, routinely facing 40-plus shots per game.
Neufeld called the 20-year-old LaForest “a proven winner” who has been better than advertised through training camp and preseason.
“I think we had a tremendous off-season. Our group did a great job of getting us some talented new guys,” Neufeld said.
And though he’s not technically a new recruit, the head coach was also excited about the return of young local forward Ty Westgard, who played 17 games last season – tallying nine points – before his season ended abruptly when his Achilles tendon was cut during a game.
“He’s looking really good, and he’s got an elite skill set that really sets him apart from a lot of players,” Neufeld said.
Now, with the roster set, the Eagles’ goal for the season is a lofty one – a division championship and a return to the post-season.
Neufeld knows winning the six-team Mainland Division will be a tough one, especially with the addition of the Wenatchee Wild, but figures his group will be up to the task.
For starters, simply avoiding any lengthy slumps – last year, the team lost 16 straight at one point – will help keep the team in contention.
“We’re not taking anything for granted. We know the division is going to be a very tough one, but the wins are going to come. We aren’t going to have a (streak) like we had last season,” he said.
“We are in a much better position now than we were last year.”
The Eagles’ home-opener is set for Friday, 7 p.m. at South Surrey Arena, and Sunday’s matchup against Coquitlam, also at home, hits the ice at 4 p.m.